Tanya sits up, actually listening. It still freaks me out a little, but I'm getting used to it.
“I'm gonna take you outside now, but in order to make sure you don't run away and get yourself killed, I have to put you on a leash.” I hold up one of my old belts. Same thing. “Which means I have to touch you, okay?”
She growls, but stays still while I fasten the belt around her neck. I'll use the extra slack as a leash.
“Okay,” I stand up, tugging on the makeshift leash. Tanya jumps off the bed and follows me out the door. Wood won't be home until sunrise, so there's no danger in the apartment...it's the rest of the building and outside I'm worried about.
I glance back at the animal. “If only we could hide your tails. Then no one would get suspicious if we got caught.”
She whimpers and backs up a few steps, looking at me fearfully.
Suddenly, I understand. “That's why you're missing some, isn't it? They wanted you to look inconspicuous.”
She crouches down, hiding her head in her paws.
“Hey, it's all right, I'm not going to even touch your tails, okay?” I try to make my voice as soothing as possible. “All I want to do is make sure you're safe. Now, let's go.”
She stands up again and prances down the steps, head held high, as if nothing happened.
In front of our building, there's a little patch of grass on either side of the door, bordered by an unhealthy-looking hedge. The grass in mostly dead now, and whatever leaves remain on the hedge are brown, but it's the best I can get right now. Luckily, there's no snow, thanks to the overhang of the building.
Tanya likes it better than inside, but makes it plain she doesn't think much of it. She does her business quickly, then starts down the sidewalk, straining against her leash.
“No...” I pull her back. “Maybe some other time we can go somewhere else, but not now, all right? I need to figure some things out.”
She growls, but follows me back inside.
We manage to make it back to my room without incident, but somehow the whole thing makes me uneasy. Like if it was fine this time, it's a sure sign something will go wrong next time.
I shake my head. You're being stupid.
That night, just as I drift off to sleep, I feel Tanya jump up and curl up against my legs, vibrating gently.
I wake up and smell bacon.
Instead of smiling, I sit bolt upright, hoping desperately that Wood didn't look in on me last night.
Tanya peeks her head out from under the bed and makes a high pitched purring sound... “fuhpix?”
“Did my uncle see you?”
She shakes her head.
I flop back onto my pillows with relief.
After a while, I get up and pull on some jeans. The bacon smell isn't from our kitchen, which is deserted, so it must be some neighbor. Wood is passed out on the couch, poor guy...I doubted he would have been up to making breakfast anyway.
I open the fridge and grab the eggs. Being the good nephew I am, I'm going to make breakfast for him.
We don't have much in the way of omelet ingredients – besides the eggs, the only thing in the fridge is a jar of peanut butter – but I add a lot of butter and salt and stuff and it smells delicious, if I do say so myself.
I look down. Tanya is sitting on her back legs, sniffing the air and looking hopefully at the frying pan.
“What are you doing?” I hissed, angry at myself for not thinking to close my door. “He could see you!”
As if in response, Wood mumbles and stirs. We freeze, but he doesn't wake up.
“Okay, here.” I flip her my egg. “But stay in my room, all right?”
She pads back down the hallway, carrying my breakfast like a trophy.
Wood's egg is done, but I don't have the heart to wake him. I set it on the table next to him and start to tiptoe away silently, when the phone rings, loud and shrill.
I pick it up quickly on the first ring. “Hello?”
I relax. “Hey, Rock.”
“Sorry if I woke up Wood...poor guy must be exhausted.”
“He is. He slept right through it.” I walk back to my room, being sure to close the door behind me. “What's up?”
“I was wondering if I could hang out over there today. My mom's trying to get me to clean my room and anyway, I wanna see this stray dog you were talking about the other day.”
I'm not sure whether to feel anxious or relieved. On one hand, this is the normal Rock, without all his distance and nervousness...on the other hand, should I let him see Tanya? Should I even tell him about her? “That'd be great! I don't know if my neighbor still has the stray dog though...we can check.”
“Great. I'll be there in ten minutes.”
I hang up and look at Tanya. She's finished with the egg and is cleaning herself. She looks a lot better than she did when I found her...but now that the bruises are gone, it's easier to see how skinny she is. I hope I'm feeding her enough.
“Hey,” I sit down on the bed next to her. “I have a friend coming over. He likes animals. Do you want to meet him?”
She bristles a little.
“Hey, it's okay!” I put a hand on her back soothingly. “He doesn't have to see you, I was just wondering. He might know more about taking care of you than I do.”
She pauses, considering, then nods and curls up with her tails tucked underneath her.
It isn't until I clean up the kitchen that I realize I touched her without being growled at.
There's a very loud knock on the door and I open it quickly before it can sound again. “Hey. Be quiet, okay? Wood's a light sleeper.”
“So light, I'm awake,” Behind me, I hear my uncle yawn. “Hi, Rock. Sorry about the dishevelment of the place.”
Rock grins and steps inside. “You know I don't care, Wood.”
Rock has been coming to our apartment for years, the only friend I haven't been ashamed of bringing here. Melissa's been over once or twice, but even though she didn't say anything, I knew she was disgusted. Besides, have a friend of the opposite gender over and Wood gets all icky.
“Oh hey, eggs! Thanks, Dan.”
I laugh. “They're kinda cold. You slept late.”
“Eh.” His mouth is already stuffed.
My stomach growls involuntarily – I still haven't eaten any breakfast – but I jerk my head at Rock. “Come on, let's go to my room.” Of course, that's the last place I really want him, but I have to avoid suspicion. Besides, I've instructed Tanya to stay under the bed unless I call for her.
Once we're safely inside, with the door shut, I sigh, heart beating almost irregularly. “Okay...so...uh...remember that stray dog you were talking about before?”
He sits down on my bed. “Yeah.”
“Well...listen, you have to keep this a secret, okay? My neighbor didn't find it, I did. But you can't tell Wood about it or anyone else...”
His brow furrows. “Why, what's wrong with it?”
I sigh again. “It's a her. And...well, you can come out now.”
Tanya's head appears between Rock's feet. She looks at me, then up at him, then back to me as if to ask Are you sure this is a smart thing to do?
I nod and she emerges completely, sitting on the floor next to me and giving Rock her most winning look.
“Dash...” He says slowly, staring at her. “Why does it have four tails...?”
I squirm. “Well...um...it's kind of a Nonextant.” That's the common term used for these things, at least by the scientific community.
Rock's eyes widen.
“Don't freak out!” I wave my hands. “Please don't freak out...I found her outside the gym...I mean, she looks bad now, but she was worse before, all beaten and starved...dammit, Rock, you know me, I would have taken a tarantula home if it needed my help...I just want to know if you can help me take care of her.”
“Her.” He repeats dumbly, still staring at her. “What's her name?”
“Tanya.” He doesn't know the names of my parents, that shouldn't be so shocking to him. “You won't tell anyone she's here, will you?”
“Right, because my goal in life is to see my best friend go to prison,” He shakes his head and looks at me. “Of course I won't tell anyone, dude.”
I breathe a sigh of relief. It might be my imagination, but I'm pretty sure Tanya does too.
“Can I pet her?” He leans down and Tanya leans away.
“Um...probably not...the only time I touched her without getting bitten was this morning.”
The animal shoots me a scathing glance like I'll get you next time.
He sits up again. “So, uh...what's wrong with it? Her, sorry.”
I gesture to her. “I don't know...neglect...I've been feeding her, but all sorts of things...mostly meat and chicken broth...I'm not even sure if she'd eat dog food or anything...”
“And you can't let her out a lot...” He glances towards the newspaper in the corner. I changed it before he came, but there's still a slight smell in the air.
“Well, of course not, she'll be shot on sight.” Tanya winces slightly.
He bites his lip and drums his fingers on his collarbone – something he always does when he's thinking hard. “Well...there is a...it's kind of a park, but no one ever goes there anymore...I think it's like condemned or something. We could go check it out today, if you want.”
Tanya stands and looks up at me, wagging her tails.
“Well...” I'm still nervous about bringing her into the open, but getting out would be good for her. “We'll have to get her past Wood...” Thinking about that sends another pang of guilt through me. Wood and I almost never see each other anymore, maybe he wants to do something with me today.
“Dash, it's for an hour. Then you and Wood can go to a movie or something and I'll bring over some stuff from the shelter.” Rock can read minds. “And, if she's okay with it, I'll hang out with her a little bit.”
Tanya considers for a moment, then nods.
Rock gives a start. “Can – can she understand me?”
She rolls her eyes and nods again.
He kneels next to her and says in his animal-trainer voice, “Sit.”
She cocks her head and them sticks her tongue out at him.I laugh. “Yeah, I'd say she understands you perfectly."